Dannie Abse 1923–
Welsh poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, short story writer, and editor.
Best known as a poet of modern, daily life, Abse is praised for his honesty, for his balanced view of life—at times affirming, at times despairing—and for his compassion. Contributing to his individual sensibility is Abse's Jewish heritage, his Roman Catholic education, and his practice as a physician. Abse takes as his setting the metropolitan scene—he lives in London—and focuses particularly on middle-class existence, conveying his thoughtful reflections in a forceful voice. The same intelligent, probing spirit is evident in Abse's three novels, his several plays, and his essays.
Critics note that Abse's poetic style and themes have developed consistently throughout his career. His early work is more markedly public poetry—generalizations on social themes—and more imitative in style than his later work. The poems in Abse's first collection, After Every Green Thing (1949), show, for example, the influence of his fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas and are written in a romantic vein. Critics observe that the poems are laden with symbolism and rely heavily on the use of the incantatory refrain. With Walking Under Water (1952) Abse achieved greater control over form and symbols and evidenced the beginning of the personal poetry that characterizes his later work. In Tenants of the House (1957) and Poems, Golders Green (1962), collections of Abse's maturing period, there is a decrease in the number of social and metaphysical poems and a shift to poems of personal experience, rendered in a conversational tone of diminished rhetoric and tight rhythm. A Small Desperation (1968) and Funland (1972), which Abse described as "The Waste Land gone mad," express Abse's mature personal outlook and artistic tone, the result of the integration of his poetic and medical vocations. As Howard Seargeant writes: "Although Dannie Abse has produced outstanding poems at various stages of his poetic career, there can be little doubt that since he has been writing 'as a whole man' and accepting his medical profession within the total complexity of his experience, his poetry has gained in scope, imaginative depth and psychological insight." In his most recent collection, Way Out in the Centre (1981), Abse draws more extensively on his Jewish background and his family life to explore the human dilemmas of love and loss, the scientific and the irrational, the personal and the professional.
Although Abse is best known for his poetry, it was his autobiographical novel Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve (1954) that originally won him recognition as a promising young writer. His two later novels, Some Corner of an English Field (1957) and O. Jones, O. Jones (1970), are concerned with issues of social conscience and evidence the poetic skill already established in his verse. Abse's most recent prose work, A Strong Dose of Myself (1983), is a collection of essays and lectures on poetry, and also includes notes on medical practice and some autobiographical pieces. This pastiche reveals the sociopsychological emphasis that has been a strong feature in all Abse's later work.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4.)
Dan's experiences [in Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve] are those commonly attributed to that fabled animal, the average boy. He has a schoolmate, Keith, with whom he is alternately friend and enemy; he comes to know the meaning of death through that of Keith's mother and his own pet frog; he learns of family strife and grievances, of the existence of girls, of the large outside world, of Berente, Spain and Dachau. The incidents, presented to us in a roughly chronological order, are related only because they happen to a single person. In E. M. Forster's terms, we have here a story but no plot.
As the events are unfolded we say "and then—and then?" But there is no causal relation between them; we do not ask "why?" The merit of the novel rests, thus, upon the incremental value of the separate incidents, and these, while interesting enough to read about, are seldom affecting or impressive enough to remember. Those that linger are usually the comic or the outrageous….
A constant irritant throughout the book is a confusion attendant upon the identity of the narrator. Is it the child Dan, a mature reflective Dan, or the author?…
There is an odd "poetical" quality about much of the writing that enables it to be distinctive without being distinguished. It reads like a pale imitation of Dylan Thomas, or as if the author had waged a losing struggle to find in English the equivalent for a foreign idiom. When Mr. Abse resorts to relatively direct statement, he does much better. There is an excellent description of the ennui and directionless activity that fill the Sunday of many people, and an equally good passage in which Dan penetrates to the mystery of existence and holds it in his hands for an entire afternoon. These pages are so good that one wishes the other pages were on the same level, that the entire novel measured up to them. But they don't, and it doesn't.
James D. Finn, "Welsh Boyhood," in Commonweal (copyright © 1955 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Foundation), Vol. LXI, No. 24, March 18, 1955, p. 638.
Dannie Abse's Some Corner of an English Field … suffers, I kept feeling, from the characteristically second-novel lack of an urgently felt action. Its theme is topical: the Outsider—what is he, why is he, where is he to go, the intellectual among middlebrows, the Jew among Christians, the non-acceptor? Henderson, a young doctor in the RAF, gets involved, through fondness and pity more than love, with the wife of a decent, heart-diseased, impotent friend of his; then with a shaggy girl … who seems to provide an escape from the smug hierarchical society of the Services; and leaves them both, feeling 'outside' both the conventional and the rebellious. What else is there for him? The question is unanswered. Mr. Abse writes well—movingly, sharply, raising even trifles into interest with a peculiar soundness and freshness of observation, a kind of spiritual integrity that enriches even his rather skimpy material.
Isabel Quigly, in a review of "Some Corner of an English Field," in The Spectator (© 1956 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 197, No. 6691, September 21, 1956, p. 396.
Mr. Abse's work [Some Corner of an English Field] is vague to the point of carelessness. He makes no apparent effort to complete his book. He merely stops writing and drops the whole thing. But his talent shows in many ways—in his thoughtful understanding of his main characters, and in the effort he makes to discover what they might mean to one another if even one of them could be brought to a sense of direction. And it shows sharply in certain phrases. He describes "the mangy cat with a piece of thin limp rope in its mouth, a length of pain," continuing, "Rope that in fact was the tail of a mouse." (pp. 72-3)
A review of "Some Corner of an English Field," in The New Yorker (© 1957 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXII, No. 46, January 5, 1957, pp. 72-3.
Mr. Dannie Abse's poetry [in Tenants of the House] is full of character and is assignable to no literary school. It is skilful, but gives the impression that it has no great opinion of skill. Individuality is what lends it force, and the style is clearly the man, a coincidence which is becoming more and more rare. Technique has no opinions; but an individual voice must have something to say, and Mr. Abse's poetry interests as much by what he says as by his way of saying it, which is often rough and ready. In the religious poems he uses allegory in such a natural way that we can read several meanings, each supplementing the others. I fancy that Mr. Abse could write a modern Everyman. (p. 392)
Edwin Muir, "Kinds of Poetry," in New Statesman (© 1957 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1385, September 28, 1957, pp. 391-92.∗
In their respective countries, Great Britain and the United States, Dannie Abse and Donald Hall are considered to be up-and-coming poets. They are among the plausible heirs of the modern movement. They are sophisticates in the best sense, urbane younger men, sensitive to literary traditions, aware of social values and distinctions, intelligently critical of prevailing middle-class standards and, in the case of Mr. Abse, of mankind's perilous flirtation with the destructive power of the atom. Both of them are concerned with the theme of self-knowledge, which is in part knowledge of the relationship of the poet to himself and to the discipline of his craft and in part knowledge of the relationship of the poet to other...
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It is nearly twenty years since Dannie Abse's first book of poems was accepted by a London publisher….
Twenty years is a long time and Dannie is now forty-three. On his last two books in particular he has left an individual and master mark. Of Tenants of the House, published in 1957, The Listener's critic wrote that 'while the rest of us have been spending our time being smart or angry or whatever, [Dannie Abse] has quietly consolidated his position as one of the most satisfying and genuine of contemporary poets, with things to say that matter and the power to say them forcefully and originally.' To this general encomium I would add the more specific claim that he has made himself one...
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Dannie Abse abstracts a mild and attractive romanticism from the territory of Larkin and Edward Thomas: and one could say that Larkin is better with the kind of pathos attempted in say, 'From a Suburban Window' and 'Interview with a Spirit Healer'. In fact, some of the poems in A Small Desperation are almost too gentle and approachable. Abse has an easy, public vein which succeeds agreeably in the lighter pieces (like the Causley-ish 'Ballad of Oedipus Sex') but can carry over disarmingly into some of the serious ones, reducing the effect. Where the more questioning elements are given rein, he is sometimes very telling: 'Fah' especially, and 'Hunt the Thimble', start some disquieting echoes....
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Dr. Abse has made a steady advance from the sonorous anonymity of his early poems—touched by Yeats and Dylan Thomas—to a dry, recognizable voice. Even since his 1962 volume [Poems, Golders Green], he has enlarged the virtues apparent in poems like "Chalk" until he can now claim [in A Small Desperation] to be charming but masculine, a craftsman whose skill does not hobble his integrity. In style he tends to be aphoristic, quotably witty: he tells us, "The cenotaph clock punishes the hour"; he remarks "the made ghost in a vacuum cleaner". His landscapes are urban; his people undergo fringe emotions like tolerable anxiety and hesitant courage. As a moralist he judges himself more harshly than he judges...
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Of the quarter's new plays it is to be hoped that Dannie Abse's clinical-comical study of north-north west madness in a mental institution, Pythagoras, is taken up by theatres other than the enterprising Brum Studio of Birmingham Rep…. (p. 56)
[The main character is] a patient who believes, like Pythagoras, in the transmigration of souls—believes himself in fact to be that famous Greek.
Although Mr. Abse had a lot of fun at the expense of medical authorities—his hero impersonates inadvertently the head of the mental hospital—the fun remained good-natured and illuminative of character. Indeed, it was the observation of the characters, both inmates and staff, which gave...
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[It] is slightly disconcerting to find on examining the Collected Poems, that [Abse] has decided to reject so many of [his poems] himself! If it is not too indelicate a phrase for a doctor, he has been commendably ruthless in his pruning—retaining only one poem from After Every Green Thing, four poems from Walking Under Water, and about two-thirds of Tenants of the House, his first three books, as well as revising some of the poems and changing a couple of titles.
As a critic, I would not wish to quarrel much about his selection, though I have reservations about one or two of his exclusions. For instance, I would be sorry to lose The Abandoned, since this poem,...
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[Dannie Abse's Collected Poems 1948–1976] are enjoyable because most of them are well-made, they can be understood at a first or second reading which pleases both the author and his considerable following; they are enlivening because many of them contain moments of humour, give the same satisfaction as a good short story, and are very much of our time in being framed within recognisable situations; and several of them, the core of Abse's achievement, convey a real feeling of unease, which is what interests me most. There are few contemporary practitioners in English who communicate such a sense of something very nasty continuing, through us and around us—a sort of disquieting apprehension that things are...
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Dannie Abse's Collected Poems is a substantial book. It displays a serious poet ("Yes, Madam, as a poet I do take myself seriously") developing his characteristic sense of irony, and a style which managed to move rapidly from the artificiality of an early poem like "Epithalamion" to a mixture of plain speaking and sonorous elevation capable of expressing how "everything and everybody / are perplexed and perplexing, deeply unknown". In "Letter to Alex Comfort" Dr. Abse comments on how his friend has "dug deep / into the wriggling earth for a rainbow with an honest spade" and those words might well serve to describe the progress of his own career as a poet. The honesty has been conspicuous, and his...
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Dannie Abse … is about as accepting of the human lot, for all its disasters, as a poet in 1978 could be. Since his last volume, Funland, came out five years ago, one is sorry to see that only the last twenty pages of this two-hundred page collection [Collected Poems 1948–1976] date from after that Funland itself was a much better book of poems than Mr. Abse's earlier work, and is surely the heart of the new volume; but that this poet possesses Eliot's "different way of saying it" I'm not fully convinced. [In his essay "What is Minor Poetry," T. S. Eliot defines a genuine poet as one who has something new to say and has a "different way of saying it."] (p. 232)
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Much of Way Out in the Centre is intent on disclosing the predicament of being both a doctor and a poet. At times it is movingly personal as in "X-ray" and "A Winter Visit", both of which concern a physician's attitude to his ill and aged mother. Abse writes of wanting to cry but being prevented by a professional familiarity with illness and grief: "for I inhabit a white coat not a black / even here—and am not qualified to weep." One vocation complicates the other.
Affecting in itself as his dilemma is, Abse is concerned to take it further in a way which seems to assert poetry over medicine. The last lines of "A Winter Visit" appear to offer his compensatory and intuitively poetic embodiment...
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[The work in Dannie Abse's Way Out in the Centre] is as diverse as the man and grows out of his Jewish heritage, the practice of medicine, life in the city of London, a concern with poetry and other poets, the experience of love and loss. The title, which comes from the last line of "A Note to Donald Davie in Tennessee," suggests something of the dissociation the poet seems to feel from the world in which he lives…. But the best poems in the book are finally such more private ones as the love poem "Last Words," the epithalamion "Smile Please" and the two beautifully moving poems on the poet's mother, "A Winter Visit" and "X-ray."
In a poem called "One Sunday Afternoon" the speaker finds...
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A Strong Dose of Myself collects Abse's essays, broadcasts and lectures from the past decade. They are presented frankly as an assemblage of disparate items, a "mosaic" in which Abse hopes the reader will "find a pattern". A pattern, if that means a structure which implies an appropriate place for every fragment, does not emerge, but there are recurrent themes, which will be familiar to those who have enjoyed Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve and A Poet in the Family: medical practice, the search for a poetic voice, the richly quirky suburban existence of a family of "wandering Welsh Jews", the self-doubt and self-advertisement of a competitive youngest son.
Inevitably, perhaps, some...
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'In dreams begins responsibility,' used by Yeats as the epigraph to his 1914 volume, could stand also at the head of all Dannie Abse's published plays. From the first performance of House of Cowards in 1960 to that of Gone in January in 1977, their dramatic images have been concerned with the making of choices and with the recognition of moral imperatives. Though differing considerably in setting, technique and achievement, the plays are obviously linked, obviously the products of the same imagination.
These plays are aloof from the main currents moving through English theatre in the sixties and seventies, which in itself awakens sympathetic curiosity. If they have an affinity to...
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Some of Dannie Abse's contemporaries seem to me in danger of being victims of their time, convinced by what they often hate and regret, and correspondent with those theoreticians, continental and otherwise, who consider poetry a word game, not in touch—as its parent language cannot be—with any reality beyond itself. In this shrinkage the poet, like a drowning man, is likely to clutch the personal or domestic scene, the little world immediately available to him. Modesty, though appealing in itself, is questionable as a desideratum for poetry. Yet almost inevitably it becomes the prevailing mien. Such poetry, by what it shrugs off, is bound to substantiate the theoreticians' disparaging view of it. Fortunately...
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